By Celine Klosterman
Joe Langenfeld knows changing President Barack Obama’s pro-choice views would take more than a university student’s protest.
But the senior at the University of Notre Dame still wants his school to know he thinks it erred in inviting the president to speak at commencement and give him an honorary degree.
“Giving him an honorary degree is sending a message of support of his actions, whether the university says it does or not,” the theology major said.
So during the commencement ceremony May 17, Langenfeld and his family expect they’ll be praying in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on Notre Dame’s campus.
“It’s less about protesting who Obama is and what he’s done than me saying to the university, I don’t think what you did was a wise decision.”
That decision has torn the Catholic university’s community apart, he said. Rallies, letter-writing campaigns, Web sites and petitions in protest have sprung up. Bishop John D’Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., said March 24 he will boycott commencement. “The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles,” he said, quoting a 2004 U.S. bishops statement.
Father John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, has said the school isn’t endorsing Obama’s pro-choice views and has invited multiple presidents to speak at commencement. “(W)e see his visit as a basis for further positive engagement,” Fr. Jenkins said in a March 23 statement.
Langenfeld, a former altar server at St. Mary Parish in Pella, said he decided to skip graduation ceremonies after praying and talking with family. He made the decision March 20, the same day Notre Dame announced it would honor Obama. “I haven’t wavered from it much.”
Making the choice wasn’t “too hard,” said Langenfeld. He doesn’t care for crowds and big celebrations, and talk of an unofficial alternative commencement ceremony didn’t appeal to him.
Praying during commencement, he thought, would be a better way to mark his graduation. “We thought it’d be a good way to celebrate who we are and what Notre Dame has meant to us: fostering of Catholic faith.”
Langenfeld’s parents were at first disappointed he wouldn’t attend commencement. He’d worked so hard to graduate, said Patrice Langenfeld, his mother. But she voiced concern that Notre Dame’s decision to honor Obama suggests the faithful are becoming “cafeteria Catholics” who pick and choose beliefs and wondered, “Do we as Catholics need to search deeper as to what we stand for?”
She’s glad her son’s making a stand. “It’s not where we thought his graduation would be, but in some ways it’s even better because I’m even more proud of his decision to do this than of his graduation from Notre Dame.”
“If any good’s going to come out of this … it will start with prayer.” But he added Obama’s speech could spark some good, too, depending on people’s response to it.
Whatever the outcome, Langenfeld plans to stay at Notre Dame for another two years to earn a master’s degree in theology. He and three classmates will help at a parish in Houston, and he hopes the experience and further study will help him decide his post-university plans.
For now, he’s sure of one thing. “I’m fully supportive of anyone who wants to go to commencement — and anyone else who doesn’t want to go,” he said. “But for me, this is the right thing to do.”